2nd Top Q: “Is It Unfair To Call All Religions ‘Scams’?”

According to the Friendly Atheist, American Atheists are running the ad below in Huntsville, Alabama:

Is it fair to call all churches scams?  Obviously there are at least some quite sincere believers.  Do all perpetuations of falsehoods and false promises for profit (of various forms) count as scams?  Or are the only scams those which are perpetuated deliberately as lies?  Or scams only those which aim at, or are indifferent to, the harmful exploitation of those they duped by the lies and false promises?  If a religion begins as a deliberate scam does it stop being one when a generation or two later it is filled with true believers who no longer even know that it started as a scam?  Can a scam go legit simply by dint of the gullible later generation leaders’ sincerity?

So, is it telling a lie if you don’t know it is a lie?  Is it a scam if it fills certain criteria of falsehood or does it require deliberate malice?

In short, today’s open philosophical question is, “Is it unfair to call all religions ‘scams’?”

Should atheists disown this American Atheists campaign in Alabama?

If you would still like to address the first, and inaugural, TOP Q it is: “How, If At All, Can People’s Claims To Simply Intuit That There Is A God Be Rationally Refuted Or Supported?”

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Bardly

    It’s only called “scam” when they pass the collection plate…
    before that, it might squeak by as a simple delusion.

  • http://godlizard.com godlizard

    Is it fair? Well, yes, but no. While the founders of a particular religion could be considered scam artists, most of them have been dead for thousands of years. Certainly some modern-day prophets *are* scam artists, but many members of the modern-day clergy are victims themselves, indoctrinated early in life and “called” to follow a path.

    Fairness aside, it a good idea to point out the scammy origins of religion on a billboard? No, I don’t think so. That wording is not going to enlighten anyone, or cause anyone to re-think anything, all it’s going to do is cause defensiveness and arguments. So if stirring stuff up with no intent of making a positive change is the intent, then this is spot-on. But if giving theists something to think about and giving closeted atheists something to relate to is the goal, it’s a fail.

  • http://obnoxiousbitch.com Rox1SMF

    Nope. They ARE all scams. A lie’s still a lie no matter how many people believe it. if gathering a bunch of fans of that lie (while promising a “return on investment” that can’t be measured OR proven) especially for the purpose of elevating one’s own social status or financial comfort isn’t a scam I don’t know what is.

    I think this language is perfect for Alabama, with all its hardcore fundies… Anything short of complete agreement with their beliefs is characterized as an “attack” anyway so why not go for the low-hanging fruit?

    The Bible Belt is rife with cases of fraud, scandal and malfeasance by churches and their leaders. There’s a decent probability that some of the people who see that sign will either themselves have fallen prey to a church scam, or know someone else who has. Those people just might get to thinking, “Yeah… maybe it’s not just that one asshole that ripped off my grandma that’s a scammer.”

    And then there’s the involvement of Ralph Reed and the Alabama chapter of the Christian Coalition in the Bernie Madoff scandal. That may have linked “religion” and “scam” in the minds of a lot of Alabamans, too. Or should have, at any rate. :)

  • Jeff Dale

    A church organization as a whole could be a scam, even if the leadership at some individual church locations happen to be merely deluded. Presumably, there are enough people in the leadership overall, who are either willfully ignorant or keeping their conclusions to themselves for deceptive or self-interested reasons, that the whole scam *should* come crashing down if enough of them got sufficiently honest and courageous.

    I wouldn’t say “malice” is required for a scam, but rather “culpability,” a broader term that includes malice, willful ignorance, and fearful silence (fear of social, financial, and/or emotional repercussions). Yes, even a preacher who keeps silent only because he’s worried about losing his livelihood is complicit in the scam, though his case is somewhat forgivable because he’s also a (formerly deceived) victim of the same scam.

    Bardly has a point, about it becoming a scam when they pass the collection plate, but I think the real point is that they were *always* going to pass the collection plate. The operation couldn’t possibly continue without donations, so as long as there are people in leadership who know better, or should know better (for any culpable reasons, as noted above), it’s a scam.

  • Phoebe

    It’s fair to call all religions scams because it’s the truth. Moses went off by himself and talked to God by way of a burning bush? Riiiiight. Lying scammer right there. And if he didn’t actually exist, then who ever wrote it and passed it off as real was the scammer.

    Look up any prophet, ancient or more recent, and you will find a bunch of ridiculous nonsense. Mohammed rode a winged horse…riiiiight. Joseph Smith Jr found a bunch of golden tablets that only he could translate…riiiiight.

    It’s very sad that there is such a huge amount of gullible, weak-minded people in the world that just automatically believe such nonsense. Gullible religious people are also the same people that send me idiotic emails with ridiculous stuff, like claiming that Obama was sworn into office with the Koran.

  • http://stewartsstruggles2.blogspot.com/ Stewart, aka Luigi

    It isn’t so much unfair to describe all religions as scams, as inaccurate, and lacking in depth. Atheism is still a minority way of thinking, though thankfully growing, and it’s clear that the majority are devoted to some religion or other. A thousand years ago, real atheism was essentially non-existent in Europe, and I imagine if we were to time-travel to any part of the world a thousand years ago we’d find everyone’s language saturated with other-worldly causation-type thinking. The same probably goes for twenty-thousand years ago, before ‘civilization’. I recently read a book about whales, and it talked of research among sperm whales – highly social mammals with the biggest brains of any creature ever recorded – which suggested that their communication and their social organisation are far more sophisticated and complex than previously realized, and that they might even practice a form of religion. Now, while I was highly sceptical [and downcast!] upon reading this, I found it plausible, because the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that religion evolves. It’s not a scam invented by charlatans – okay leaving aside scientology and maybe a few others. It’s not an invention at all. I would suggest that Pascal Boyer’s book ‘Religion Explained’ should be required reading for anyone wanting to get a handle on religion.
    Believe me, I’m no friend of religion, but it’s essential to know your enemy. To call religion in general a scam is to misrepresent it and to underestimate it – and you won’t defeat it that way.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    A scam has to be deliberate. Someone isn’t “lying” just by saying something false. Lots of our beliefs are probably false but perfectly well justified. Consider Newton’s theory of physics that was falsified by Einstein.

  • liz gecan

    Wouldn’t still believing in something after it has been proven false imply participating in a scam? Science has proven all holy books to be fantasy, thousands of times over hundreds of years.

    It is profitable to “believe”, and not just because of the tax exempt status of the churches. Most churches I see are out to convert “heathens” and reward their flock with plentiful business and social opportunities unavailable to others, plus the various “delights” awaiting them in the afterlife.

    Deliberate scams….. oh yeah. A deliberate and self centred pathway to riches and opportunism.

  • mikespeir

    I agree with James Gray. There has to be an intent to deceive and profit by the deception. Now, a religion might be a scam on somebody’s part. Say, for instance, the Pope knows very well that Roman Catholicism is groundless but perpetuates it to his own ends. For him, it’s a scam. That doesn’t mean it is for the priest who genuinely believes in it. And I’ve known many a Protestant pastor and evangelist who just managed to scrape by year after year after year. For those, Christianity never meant riches; they weren’t expecting riches. They really believed what they were preaching. I’m convinced they basically threw their lives away for a delusion. But they certainly weren’t scammers.

  • Jeff Dale

    The question is not whether each individual preacher or church leader is a scammer, but whether the religion they represent is, as a whole, a scam. If some of the people working for Madoff didn’t know they were working for a Ponzi scheme, they weren’t scammers, but their business was nonetheless a scam. I think it’s safe to say that a sizable number of individual preachers and church leaders have serious doubts about, or outright disbelief of, their dogma. A sizable number, even if not a majority, could do major damage to their religion if they all spoke out. Thus, even if those doubters and disbelievers convince themselves that their motives are good (e.g., people are better off believing) or at least forgivable (e.g., preserving their own livelihood), they are scammers, and their religion is a scam.

    Seems to me that a religion only avoids being a scam if it can somehow purge itself of the doubting or disbelieving minority in its leadership, and keep itself purged. This seems unlikely. Imagine if a bunch of church leaders started tearing apart their church. Some church members would be persuaded to doubt or disbelieve, but some number (perhaps a majority) would stubbornly or ignorantly cling to belief. Thus, after the doubters and disbelievers, among both the leadership and membership, have left the church, what’s left in the church are those who’ve clung to delusion… and a few more in the leadership who were persuaded to doubt or disbelieve, but continue to profess faith for virtuous and/or self-interested motives such as those I alluded to above. Those new doubters and disbelievers in the leadership become the new scammers, and the scam continues. It’s possible that a religion could ultimately be pared down to a small number who are severely and irreparably deluded, but in practice I’m guessing that happens seldom, if ever.

  • Daniel Fincke

    While the site was down, Pete C., an old friend from high school, with whom I have only recently reconnected through Facebook and I had what I thought was a relevant and productive exchange. Pete wrote:

    I agree that a scam implies a fraud and I thought it interesting to examine this. From a legal perspective, fraud has nine elements according to the US Supreme Ct: 1) there is a representation; 2) that is false; and 3) material. The representation must 4) be known to be false or there is a reckless disregard for its falseness/truth, and it must be 5) intended that the “victim” act upon it. The victim must 6) be ignorant of its falsity and 7) rely upon it as true as well as have 8) a right to rely on it AND 9) suffer a consequent and proximate injury.

    Again I’m talking out of turn perhaps because I cannot see the page. However, there is certainly an argument that A) religion, as a concept and by its nature, cannot be affirmatively disproved but merely not proven, creating a problem with #2; B) may have so little an impact on any number of individuals so as not to run afoul of #3; C) the level of delusion of those who profess it may not trigger #4; and D) at a minimum we can argue over whether or not it actually causes a harm to many people.

    As a result, I do not think one can consider religion as a whole a scam or fraud as a concept. However it can certainly be shown and proven that religion is USED as an artifice or scheme to defraud on a case by case basis.

    And in reply, I wrote:

    Thanks so much, Pete. The issue is whether religions are guilty of 4, reckless disregard for their beliefs’ falseness/truth. And I would say that this increases their culpability despite delusion defenses—not technically from a legal perspective, but from a moral one. This gets us into hard questions about whether we can hold people morally culpable for choices to accept bad epistemic grounds for their beliefs.

    That’s a fine question for a coming day—-if my blog ever gets restored!

    And Pete wrote:

    Just making sure I understand your position. Taking a step to the side, do we agree that both moral and legal culpability require a particular mental state in order to be achieved? Recklessness is a mental state in legal terms. Are you suggesting that religious practitioners are morally culpable despite a genuinely held delusion that would theoretically render them incapable of understanding the “truth?”

    Consider just for the purposes of illustration the mentally ill. As a public policy matter we do not incarcerate or execute the mentally ill for crimes because we deem it impossible for them to fully comprehend the nature of their transgressions (and thus they lack the mens rea to be fully culpable). Assuming you agree with this as a matter of policy, how do religious practitioners with genuinely held beliefs differ from the mentally ill in this regard, if in your view they do at all?

    And I wrote:

    I really don’t think the religious are delusional. I think they make culpable rational choices to believe on insufficient evidence. While they are young, of course, they are more excusable for being so swayable. As one gets older though there are moral concepts of culpable ignorance that I think become relevant. Especially when we are talking about people who study enough to make it into the hierarchy of a church in the 21st Century.

    Maybe two or three centuries ago the intellectual culpability wasn’t so bad (but, honestly, even further back anyone who read David Hume and still came away believing was probably guilty of intellectual dishonesty). In THIS day and age to research theology and the attendant philosophical and scientific issues related to it and come away believing, I do think you are open to charges of moral culpability for intellectual disregard for the truth. I mean, you know as well as everyone who knew me before I went to college, Pete, that I was as devout as they come in many respects before I went off to formally study theology. I just cannot fathom how any one with an intellectual conscience looks at the contingencies of those historical documents, thinks through the philosophical issues involved and opts to promote faith in the Bible as the inerrant word of God or the God of the old testament as a just being, etc., etc.

    Now maybe they honestly honestly think that and the corruption of their reason is just too far for them to freely resist it. Does that make them not morally blameworthy? Well, this is an old paradox because it extends not to just THIS moral failure but to all moral failure. On the theory that NO ONE really does what in the moment they think looks evil or that people from evil cultures inevitably think all sorts of evil things are good or that people raised in certain immoral habits will find it impossible not to see them as desirable, etc., we have the same problem of when we can blame people for just seeing things wrongly. In some ways you might argue persuasively that all immorality integrally involves errors of reason. Does that make no one morally blameworthy?

    And finally Pete replied:

    I wanted to respond to what you said here nonetheless, feel free to move this over as well if you like.

    As you may remember from high school, I was in a similar boat as you, and with exposure to college found myself on a similar path, though I think I may be more forgiving (for lack of a better word) of religion. I find myself very open to the possibility of a god but highly distrustful of what I’ve been told by religious practitioners. Hence my following reply:

    I would debate your first point, “they make culpable rational choices to believe on insufficient evidence.” I started, but did not finish, reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. (Why I found myself unable to finish it is a matter for another day.) I may be remembering incorrectly but he espoused the idea (or allowed me to contemplate it for myself) that the evolution of humans is based in part on the concept of trust. That is, we have a tendency to believe our parents or figures of authority when they tell us not to do X, because it could be harmful. Such is what has allowed us to survive, the passage of vital knowledge. We are genetically wired to trust and it is a strong pull.

    I know that there was a Holocaust because someone told me so. I’ve never seen the camps and I certainly wasn’t there. I believe it happened for two reasons. 1) I find the source of such knowledge to be more credible than those who deny it and 2) it aligns with my moral center to believe it (because it can serve as a warning against the repetition of what I believe to be reprehensible). Similarly, I acknowledge the science of evolution not because I examined the evidence, but because someone I found to be credible told me this is how the evidence lines up, and it does not necessarily collide with my beliefs.

    Christianity, and the Bible, tell us of things that happened 2000 years ago, and the old testament goes back even further. If the existence of God manifested itself then (and only then), we would have no way of knowing other than to trust those that hand the book down to us.

    Your response presupposes that the source of the contrary knowledge (science, for example) should be of sufficient weight IN THE MIND OF THE BEHOLDER to overcome a lifetime of trusted figures telling one how to think to ensure their survival (spiritual, social or otherwise). This is a basal instinct to be sure. For some, it is not always perceived as a black and white case of fact vs fiction, as there are many examples of tortured logic being used by religious authority figures to justify certain beliefs (the age of the earth, for example). Thus I do not see willful ignorance or an “intellectual disregard of the truth” as you say to be quite so cut and dry. The mind is under the yoke of the original source that imparted the flawed knowledge. I do not find the passage of time or the greater availability of knowledge to have an effect on this principle. I essentially find it an irony that on some level, evolution causes some of us to deny its very existence, merely because someone has tried to tell us it isn’t so. Doesn’t such a condition, a tragic flaw if you will, deserve some modicum of pity that detracts from culpability?

    That being said, your aim on the final point is true, this is a very real paradox. This evolutionary pull notwithstanding, does it make conduct excusable? At what point do we decide that one is, for example, mentally ill and incapable of knowing right from wrong (and thus not culpable) or just exhibiting a willful disregard? On this you have me somewhat stuck. A line clearly has to be drawn. Society does not permit people to behave however they see fit.

    I agree that people need to be held accountable for what amounts to a reckless disregard for the truth, with the punishment being proportional to the damage caused by such a disregard. The question then becomes, is religion such a disregard, and the best answer I can come up with is, “it depends.” I think organizing a protest at a military funeral because you believe that God kills soldiers because of homosexuals is a reckless and harmful act. I think believing that a man who could turn water into wine told people to turn the other cheek and as such, we should do it too, is not a reckless or harmful act in and of itself. I fully acknowledge that these are not objective views — they are views highly tinted with my own moral beliefs.

    I am therefore loathe to call religion as a whole reckless, or a scam, but acknowledge its very real potential to be grossly misappropriated.


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